AUGUSTA — At 6 a.m. each weekday, 68-year-old Jeff Augsburger takes out the small bus operated by Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, an anti-poverty nonprofit that aims to help people in need get from point A to point B.

Much like the rest of central Maine, public transportation options are nonexistent in Augusta. Organizations like KVCAP are trying to bridge that gap, especially for older Mainers and people with disabilities.

In Augusta, residents can use the KVCAP bus service on weekdays by calling 24 hours prior and providing their pick-up and drop-off locations, along with the time they need a ride. Augsburger does the rest, arriving at the requested time, which is relayed to him via a digital tablet he keeps by his driving seat.

This on-demand bus service has become KVCAP’s key transportation program, and the agency plans to expand it into Waterville and Skowhegan.

“We mostly get busy around 8 or 9 in the morning, when most businesses start work,” said Augsburger, who has been driving for KVCAP for nearly four years. “It’s like a taxi service but much cheaper.”

Before the pandemic, the bus service used a fixed-route system with a timetable that people were familiar with. Four routes included different grocery stores and, on the other side of the Kennebec River, the Togus VA center, Gardiner, and Maine General Medical Center.


Then, funding dwindled, and staffing shortages increased, forcing the program to discontinue some routes and embrace the on-demand structure.

Kennebec Valley Community Action Program bus drivers Bill Flood, left, and Jeff Augsburger chat Sept. 21 during a break at the temporary Water Street bus shelter next to Rines Hill Bridge across from Pouliot Real Estate in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Steve Bergen, a 76-year-old Togus resident and military veteran, relies on the bus rides to visit Shaw’s, Target, or Hannaford to run errands. The Togus VA Medical Center is a federal healthcare campus for veterans. “Cabin in the Woods,” a permanent housing development built across 11 acres on the campus, is where Bergen stays.

In the past, Bergen could conveniently get on the Togus bus. Now, he must ride 30 minutes on his power scooter to arrive at a Dollar General on Eastern Avenue, where he is helped onto the bus by Augsburger, who drives him to his destination.

“I had a car earlier, but then I got sick and can’t drive anymore. They had buses running, but they stopped them because of lack of drivers,” said Bergen. “But yeah, this (on-demand service) makes it easier.”

Augsburger said that the lack of drivers persists. “We could use two or three more drivers,” he said.

Since the pandemic began, the organization has lost 50% of its volunteer workforce.


“The need significantly outweighs our resources,” said Erin Binghalib, the senior transportation director for KVCAP. “We, of course, struggle to meet the demands and rely heavily on volunteer drivers. They volunteer their time to help people, but our reimbursement rates are not as impactful when fuel prices go up, or competitive against private companies.”

The problem is that drivers who can operate large vehicles like public buses are often also certified to operate other vehicles such as trucks. When offered a choice to drive a truck for a private company for higher wages, drivers choose to leave.

Jeff Augsburger drives a Kennebec Valley Community Action Program bus north on Water Street in front of The Olde Federal Building in downtown Augusta on Sept. 21. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Binghalib said that recently awarded grant funding could help alleviate the situation. KVCAP recently received a federal grant of $650,462 along with Penquis, a nonprofit organization that offers similar services.

The Federal Transit Administration provided the grant as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law to help improve the scheduling and planning software that helps the service operate efficiently.

Another issue is that available grants are often limited to capital improvements. Finding funds to hire operators is much harder.

“During the pandemic, we received 100% of funds from the government to provide services, but since then they have provided a portion, and we match the rest while the costs are going up,” Binghalib said.


The silver lining is that the new system has been a blessing in disguise. The number of riders has not dwindled amid the transition from closing bus routes and offering rides based on requests.

“The passengers like it, the drivers like it, and it suits us,” said Binghalib. “It’s good enough that we are going to start similar on-demand, door-to-door service in Waterville and Skowhegan areas in January.”

The organization is also looking for more operating funds, in addition to almost $600,000 for this fiscal year, to expand the on-demand service and add a program that will specifically provide rides to grocery stores.

Barbara Bolduc heads in to work her volunteer shift at Addie’s Attic after taking the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program bus on Sept. 21 to Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

While KVCAP has cast its net in Kennebec and Somerset County, Neighbors Driving Neighbors, a volunteer-run organization, is making similar efforts to improve mobility for older and sick Mainers in six other towns: Belgrade, Vienna, Readfield, Mount Vernon, Rome, and Fayette.

Unlike KVCAP, this organization is run by volunteers, except for two part-time paid employees. They, too, drive residents to doctor’s appointments or social events – all for no cost.

“We only have retired citizens who offer time to be drivers, so we need at least a five-day notice, and we can’t promise rides because we don’t always have drivers available,” said Executive Director Joe Austin.


Unsurprisingly, an organization that relies on donations and volunteers faces challenges. Demand for rides is increasing, but meeting them is a struggle. Even though services have been recently expanded to Readfield, funding is scarce. The organization is working to increase the number of riders while applying for multiple grants.

“We know the demand is there, people need to visit doctors, and after the pandemic, social isolation has become an issue,” Austin said. “We need to get to people in rural areas without computer access, so we are trying to communicate our services to them through flyers, word of mouth, advertising.”

Infrastructure is also a priority. With enough funds, the plan is to increase hours for the part-time employees, improve the technology involved, pay for the right insurance, and invest in advertising the services in rural regions.

Although growing the organization is a natural step, the priority is to retain the sense of community derived from the act of a neighbor driving another neighbor, Austin said.

“We don’t want to become a taxi service,” Austin said. “Right now, drivers love talking to riders, and vice versa. It is a part of their routine. We don’t want to lose that essence of the community that makes it an attractive service.”

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